A tale of two developments

Two development projects came to light this week in the local papers, and at council chambers.

Both are planned to occupy under-utilized pieces of land adjacent to major transportation corridors, and both are going to convert unused space into economic drivers by providing jobs. However, these two projects are completely different. By comparison and contrast, they teach us about sustainable land use planning, and how it relates to sustainable transportation planning. They serve to challenge us about the type of City we want to build.

First, the good news. Bentall Kennedy (yes, those Bentalls; no, not those Kennedys), the owners of the biggest freaking warehouse in the world adjacent to the Braid Skytrain Station, are hoping to develop the lot that includes the warehouse visible from space and the surrounding empty lots.

The report to Council outlines a first phase office complex development, followed by further offices, commercial and/or residential space. They are in the early part of the planning process, and want to get out into the community to do some consultation before they roll out their final plans (hear that TransLink?), but from the media reports, it sounds like two office buildings are already moving through the process, and more to come.

Why am I excited about office buildings? Because empty lots beside a SkyTrain Station are an embarrassing lack of planning, and a big warehouse (where stuff is taken off of one truck only to be put onto another) right next to SkyTrain Station is doubly so. Building a transit-oriented development at this future transit hub (if, as Gordie the Liar once speculated, we ever get transit onto the Shiny New Bridge). Presumably, the value of that land has increased due to the presence of SkyTrain, and this property will not only provide jobs and potential living space to accommodate growth, it will provide much-needed business revenue for the City’s coffers. Much like the MUCF, a location next to a transit hub is actually a feature when attracting 21st century businesses. New Westminster, with 5 SkyTrain Stations, is only beginning to cash in on this benefit.

Note how they are going to consult with the City and the residents before they build? Absent other info, I would suggest building working and living space next to a transit station is a good idea that we should support.

Now the bad news. The big, empty space over which you can enjoy views of Poplar Island from the east sidewalk of the Queensborough Bridge (arguably a better view than Walmart over wrecked cars – the offering from the west sidewalk) is finally going to be put to use: for taking things off of then putting them back onto trucks.

No doubt strategically located adjacent to the potential North Fraser Perimeter Road, the people of Queensborough, already burdened by excessive trucks and traffic, are going to get to enjoy dozens more trucks on their surface streets. Not trucks picking up goods from New Westminster manufacturers, or delivering goods to New Westminster businesses, but just brought here, unloaded, reloaded and shipped off elsewhere. Since it is Port Metro Vancouver land, we don’t even get the Property Tax Benefits of having a commercial distribution hub. More traffic, more road wear, minimal tax benefit. Bad idea.

Notice how the Port didn’t ask to do this, but sent a letter to the Queensborough community telling them they will be doing it? They are the Freakin Port of Freakin Metro Freakin Vancouver: they don’t need no stinkin’ consultations.

If we were consulted, what would we say? Unloading, storing and loading trucks is, perhaps, not the best use for our valuable waterfront industrial property. Although the Port originally promised short-sea shipping at this location, that seems pretty unlikely now. If you look at Port lands along the Fraser, less and less of it is involved in putting things on or off ships, and more of it is becoming a tax-free and lucrative place to build truck-only warehouse complexes. The job creation is minimal, the tax benefits are limited, and the environmental, economic and social costs of increased truck traffic in our neighborhoods is significant. The former Interfor lands, if not a place where manufacturing can take place, could at least be a location where short-sea shipping can reduce the need for the North Fraser Perimeter Road, for the United Boulevard Extension, for lines of trucks backed up on Stewardson every morning…

What do these two projects say about Urban Planning? To quote the ghost of Shoeless Joe: “if you build it, they will come”. Metro Vancouver is growing, but the type of growth we will see in New Westminster depends on the growth we are building to accommodate. Do we want relatively dense office and commercial development next to residential spaces, connected to the rest of the Lower Mainland by an integrated transit and greenway system (i.e. Braid Station, the MUCF, the Brewery District, Plaza 88)? Or do we want our roads full of trucks, connecting inefficient goods-shuffling (but not manufacturing) businesses spread out along our waterfront and through our neighborhoods?

If we build truck routes we will get trucks. If instead we build a modern, integrated system to move people and goods, we will more efficiently move people and goods, and become an attractive place for transit-oriented development.

…and on an almost completely unrelated note, the UBE is coming back to the table on Saturday.

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